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‘It’s a hard time in the life of the world’ — a conversation with Krista Tippett

The ‘On Being’ host talks about her new podcast, the future of religion and why she explores ‘ancient, enduring questions’

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Alex Cochran, Deseret News

Editor’s note: This Q&A has been adapted from the podcast “Interfaith America with Eboo Patel.” Patel is a Deseret contributor.

We are no longer a Judeo-Christian nation. That’s not a statement of opposition; it’s an invitation to the next chapter. The Judeo-Christian ethos did good work for a century, and I mean that in a very concrete way. The term was not given to Moses on Sinai. It was not written by Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence. It was created in the 1930s. It was a civic creation, not one that was especially historically or theologically accurate. Its purpose was to engage with and defeat the antisemitism and anti-Catholicism of the times. 

And it worked. It was a lot easier to be a Jew or a Catholic in America in 1990 than in 1930, but the nation has changed. There are now twice as many Muslims and Buddhists in America as Episcopalians, just as many Muslims and Buddhists as there are ELCA Lutherans. The median age of Muslims and Buddhists and Hindus is 20 years younger than white Christians. We live in an entirely new American religious landscape. 

Someone who understands that is Krista Tippett, who has for nearly 20 years led a national conversation at the intersection of faith, meaning and social life. Her PBS radio show “On Being” has been required listening for millions of people, and it’s now continuing as a podcast. In our conversation, we talk about institution building, social healing, and of course, Deen and Dunya, faith and the world.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

Krista Tippett in her studio.

“On Being” podcaster Krista Tippett in her studio.

Chris Daniels Photography

Eboo Patel: What have you heard in the studio of “On Being” that has changed the way you’ve approached your work, your life, the nation, the world and religion?

Krista Tippett: It’s a hard time in the life of the world. And I feel that. I feel that deeply. I think the accumulative effect of the conversations that I have is to see and really honor the reality of what I call the generative landscape of our time.

It’s a lifeline because what I get from the breaking news, it would break me if that were the narrative. And there’s truth there, and there’s truth that’s important that’s out there, but I always see this larger, wilder, more humane picture that is also as true, as serious, and it is what — I don’t want to use this language of “what can save us,” right? 

It’s not that simple, but our human capacities to be generous, to be loving in muscular ways, to be socially creative, to be kind, to orient towards goodness and wholeness, those things are also fierce and alive. I feel like every conversation I have, including the conversations I’ve had with you over the years, reminds me that (this) is true and adds infinite variation to what that means, what that looks like in a particular life, in a particular place, in a particular field. And I’m really grateful that I have that now.

EP: How would you describe what “On Being” is?

KT: What I care about, and what I feel like what “On Being” is about, is a particular conversation, a set of questions, a quality of conversation speaking together differently that leads to living together differently, and podcasting is a form. It’s a place where we do that, but the important thing is the conversation. 

As we’ve evolved, it’s actually about us not creating more media, but really leaning in creatively to the impact that this conversation has and the ways people take it into their lives and into their communities, and how can we serve that? How can we serve? I think our content works at the intersection of inner life, outer presence, to the world and life together.

What I started to realize eventually, and when we changed the name to “On Being,” is that what I’m pursuing, the lens we’re taking, is on the animating questions behind our traditions and behind this whole part of life. And these are the ancient, enduring human questions. What does it mean to be human? How do we want to live? And who will we be to each other? I think in the 21st century, that third question is absolutely inextricable from the basic question of what it means to be human.

EP: Do you embrace the CEO role because you enjoy it, or because you’re like, “Only I’m going to be able to do this the way that I want to do it?”

KT: One of the things I realized in the last couple of years is that if this is what the “On Being” project is about, what I just described, then we have to invest in the quality of our interior life as an organization. We have to actually be embodying, as an organization, what we want to be helping curate and nourish in the world.

Sure, I’m going to own this; I don’t step back and let other people do the work. There’s also in me a 20th-century perfectionist person who works to the point of exhaustion. I’m very much a product of our culture, which values high performance. One of the things I’ve moved to is this can’t be a culture in which I’m an exhausted leader. Leading is hard, as you know. It’s hard, it’s lonely.

We’ve moved to a distributed leadership model. I have two colleagues who really are my peers. There’s a vision that I hold and there’s a voice that I have that is distinct and uniquely authoritative and they also have authoritative voices.

EP: What might be different about American religion in 10 or 15 years that is just impossible to predict from now?

KT: If I think about 2 millennia ago, there was one way to be religious and it was Christian, and there was one way to be Christian. There wasn’t even this diversity of denomination. And the early monastics was a spiritual renewal movement that took itself outside the boundaries of that official church, that official religiosity, that also looked at the institution and said, “You have betrayed your own highest values.”

That recovered contemplative life — a thousand years after this thing started, that was just 10 people over here and 10 people there. You know St. Benedict — he’s one of the people who kicked off the official monastic movement — was not a big success story in his lifetime. One of the communities he moved into tried to poison him. And what he started, that rule, has rippled through thousands of years of history. Its ripples are not just in religion; they’re in life.

What I like about that is that it is a story about how change actually happens in our world, and it’s a story about how what looks the most obvious is not necessarily the most important thing that’s happening or the most efficacious thing that’s happening.

I also hear echoes of this in these unchurched, spiritual and not religious (people), the unaffiliated — all of those names — “nones” — but who are also kind of giving themselves over to, “How can we be part of the healing of our world?” They are rediscovering interior life and contemplative life, and they are looking for rituals and they are creating new forms of community.

Eboo Patel, the founder and president of Interfaith America, is a contributing writer for the Deseret News, the author of “We Need to Build: Field Notes for a Diverse Democracy” and the host of the podcast “Interfaith America with Eboo Patel.” The full episode of this podcast is available on Interfaith America, Spotify and Apple. New episodes are released every Tuesday.